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Open Access needs to get 'back to basics'

As manager of the network of SURF, the Dutch agency responsible for promoting information technology in higher education, I support Open Access as defined by Jan Velterop1. But when I read the contributions of my supposed Open Access allies in this Nature Focus, and in other forums, I feel my enthusiasm waning. It seems that supporters of Open Access are unable to agree on almost anything. The broadest consensus they seem to have achieved is one of doubt.

In contrast, the response of Elsevier2 to questions posed by the UK House of Commons' Select Committee on Science and Technology is characterized by anything but doubt, or hesitation for that matter. And judging by other contributions to this Focus, traditional publishers of all colours seem to strike a consensus on a series of basic issues, that is currently badly lacking among Open Access advocates.

Moreover, when Elsevier states that Open Access is an uncertain venture, it need look no further for supporting evidence than the divergent views of the movement's proponents. There is also a clash here between the hard-headed robustness and commercial professionalism of publishers versus the often amateurish nature of academic discourse. This needs to be remedied; whereas the Open Access mentality is broadly embraced, Open Access practice stagnates, and a breakthrough fails to materialize. The serials crisis may soon be accompanied by an Open Access crisis.

I feel it is essential that the Open Access movement itself sets out at least a lowest common denominator set of basic principles on which its followers can agree.

In my view these could include:

1. That the Open Access model would be inherently cheaper than the subscription model

The costs of access control, for example, are considerable, and are included in the subscriptions charged by traditional publishers. Faced with the Open Access movement, publishers are confronted with strategic questions: 'How liberal should, or must, we be? What would be the consequences for our turnover and our goodwill? Do we need to adapt our business model?'

But after such publishers have analysed and investigated such questions, often at brainstorming sessions in luxurious rural conference centres, they bring their lawyers and marketing people into the picture. The result is, for example, long licence contracts that can take months to negotiate, and which ultimately serve to protect only the publishers' interests.

All these ancillary costs are included in the price of the subscription, meaning that it is the libraries themselves that are saddled with the costs of making their material inaccessible! Open Access has none of the costs of access control, so it must be inherently cheaper than its subscription counterpart in any comparable business model.

2. That it is rarely individuals who pay for the scientific communication process

Critics of Open Access make much of the supposed fact that in this model it is the individual author that pays. But this is just as (un)true as claiming that the reader pays in the subscription model. At the end of the day, it is inevitably the institution that pays for the scientific communication process, either through its library or via its research budget. Suggestions that Open Access will discriminate against poorer authors are also disingenuous in that all OA journals waive charges for developing countries and authors who cannot afford to pay Open Access "dissemination fees.".

3. That the Internet changes scholarly publishing, in that costs are proportional to the number of publications and independent of the number of readers

In the electronic world, a submitted paper generates an identifiable workflow resulting in acceptance or rejection of the article, its presentation and archiving. But the costs of an additional reader are close to zero. Open Access, where costs are tailored to article numbers rather than readers, therefore scales better than the traditional publishing model.

At present, the academic community pays around $6500 to have an article published by Elsevier, $1500 by the Public Library of Science (PloS), and $525 by BioMed Central (BMC). I base this on my calculation that on average, a subscription to an Elsevier journal costs $2000 per year, which amounts to 150 articles, or $13 per article per subscription. Assuming a subscription base of 500, this comes to $6500 per article. Elsevier itself implicitlys support this estimate, having stated to the parliamentary committee that the PLoS dissemination fee of $1500 only covers 40% to 60% of article publication costs. So, in its view, these costs are somewhere between $3000 and $4000. Add a profit margin of say 35% and a margin of 10% to 20% for the paper version, and you get an estimate of around $6500. A final deduction for the above mentioned subscription costs further narrows the gap between Elsevier and its Open Access competitors. The balance can be inefficiency costs on one side (Elsevier's) or structural loss at the other side (BMC's).

Meanwhile, how can we be expected to counter assertions about the sustainability of Open Access business models, given that publishers are themselves secretive about their own business cases? It would be a great insight if every publisher were to make public the breakdown of its prices into three components: the costs of the publishing process from submission to presentation, the costs of the subscription process, and their profit margins. Until these figures are public, assertions as to the sustainability of various business models are speculative at best and manipulative at worst.

For most authors, gaining impact is the decisive factor when considering where to publish. So far there is scarce proof that Open Access publishing leads to more citations and to higher article impact. On the other hand, opponents of Open Access do not seem to argue that inevitably Open Access will lead to greater exposure and reading of articles.

This effect is likely to be amplified given that both Yahoo and Google have both recently begun to explore pilot projects in indexing Open Access repositories. Imagine the impact of the big search engines giving direct access to academic content. If what authors want is impact then the Googles and Yahoos of this world, in combination with Open Access repositories, can offer them a service that may bypass publishers altogether and leave libraries with the simple task of maintaining their Open Access repositories. In this respect, it is interesting to keep in mind that the ranking mechanism in Google is based on 'authorities', a measure for the number and importance of links to a site. In other words, the ranking mechanism of Google is not so different from the impact mechanism used to rank scientific articles.

Leo Waaijers

Platform manager ICT and Research, SURF, The Netherlands


  1. http://www.alpsp.org/2003pdfs/jvjul03.pdf (p. 168)

  2. http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/authored_newsitem.cws_home/companynews05_00069

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